09.05.12, Scase, Literature and Complaint

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T. Turville-Petre

The Medieval Review baj9928.0905.012


Scase, Wendy. Literature and Complaint in England, 1272-1553. Oxford, Uk: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. 215. ISBN: 9780199270859.

Reviewed by:
T. Turville-Petre
University of Nottingham

Wendy Scase aims to demonstrate "that the judicial institutions of written complaint which emerged dramatically in the reign of Edward I came into dialogue with literary production, becoming part of, and centrally informing, a wider literature of complaint." This is an important subject that has received unsatisfactory or only partial treatment up to now. Her first chapter examines the early development of the pleinte, libellus or bill, focussing on the development of "peasant plaint" in relation to contemporary texts such as some of the poems from MS Harley 2253. It has too readily been assumed that in such poems we get rare and privileged access to the feelings of "the people." With admirable and compelling cynicism Scase shows how writers used the tradition of peasant plaint to forward their own very different interests. Beginning with the macaronic (mainly Latin) Poem on Disputed Villein Services, she shows how in 1276-7 the monks of Leicester Abbey dealt with the grumbling villagers of Staunton by denying that villeins had any legal status as plaintiffs. Edward III's Inquisitions to enquire why the taxation of the ninth of 1340 had produced less revenue than expected give a picture of poor harvests and corrupt officials, but clearly Edward's object was to extract more tax rather than to help starving peasants. This and similar material throws a very different light on poems in Harley 2253. The macaronic (French and Latin) Against the King's Taxes laments that the "commune gent" must sell all to pay the fifteenth, but the writer's real point is that "la meyté ne vient al roy in regno quod levatur" ("not half the tribute raised in the land reaches the king"). The English Song of the Husbandman is interpreted by Scase as "a lament on behalf of all who have been reduced by royal taxation to a position analogous to that of the villein". She glosses "carpeþ for þe kyng" (l. 9) as "complain in the presence of the king," equivalent to the legal term coram rege, and interprets the crux "a bitterore bid to þe bon" (l. 7) as "a more grievous item to the petition," convincingly, I think. Here one might note in passing the vocabulary of the poem that combines colloquial expressions of complaint with legal terms.

The book then moves on to a discussion of the notion of clamour introduced in the 1340s; "the term implied several plaints or widespread complaint." The trial of chief justice Richard Willoughby in 1341, charged with corruption and imprisoned, provides an illuminating instance of clamour de poeple, since the basis for the charges was that his crimes were notorious. Scase doesn't finish the story, for Willoughby was restored two years later, implying that the whole case was a political stitch-up. The reader (this reader, at any rate) expects to see the Willoughby story used to throw light on literary works, most obviously Piers Plowman, which actually uses the expression clamat cotidie (B.19.416), explained by John A. Alford, Piers Plowman: A Glossary of Legal Diction as "a formula sometimes used to initiate criminal proceedings against a public enemy." But Scase barely mentions Langland's poem, though notions of the pleinte ("For pouere men may haue no power to pleyne" B.3.168) run through the Piers Plowman. Alford's Glossary offers a wonderfully rich resource so far unexploited for a study of Langland's relationships with the law and legal texts. So also Mum and the Sothsegger deserves fuller treatment for its savage attack on the system of complaint: "That yf the pouer playne, though he plede euer /...he wircheth al in waste" (ll. 577-9).

Instead Scase goes on to consider the Mercers' Petition (in English) and the other petitions against Nicholas Brembre (in French) in relation to the Parliament of 1388. She asserts that "the really crucial significance of this text for the history of relations between literature and complaint is that someone saw its potential to become complaint of legal standing, to provide evidence of clamour." This seems to use "literature" in a very wide sense, as does the title of the following chapter "The Literature of Clamour," for the texts discussed, Lollard petitions and libels, are only "literature" in that they are written, often in English. Nevertheless, such texts are very much worth study in their own right. Beneath the handful discussed here lies a treasure trove of documents in Latin, Anglo-Norman, and increasingly in English, so rich that it is difficult to know how to start on them. Though a few have been printed, often in journals of local history, most are entirely unknown, and historians of language and prose style too often write as if they did not exist. A study might begin by examining the language and construction of English complaints from the early 15th century, and relating this to the traditional expressions of complaints in Latin and French. Do the writers take advantage of the immediacy and intimacy of English, or do they simply take over French and Latin legal terms? Every region of England was seething with complaints, and many of these were powerfully expressed in the local dialects of the complainants. One example of hundreds is "The compleintz of þe full gret injuries and of þe vnconciently demenyng of Elizabeth Whitfield" from the 1430s, in which Elizabeth charges that Ralph, Lord Cromwell abducted her. At one point:

The said lord consideryng þat a grete disclaundere shuld be noysed in þat cuntre, wherfor he sent hir vnto þe Castell of Rising bysyde hym, and þere was she put to the gouernaunce of a Frenchewoman and couth speke noo English, which putt to þe same Elizabeth to grete and full labour and grete duresse. And so she was with þe same Frenchewoman half a yere in grete tribulacioun and disease, without eny comforte of eny creature. (Nottingham University Library, Pa L 2)
This is movingly expressed by a writer who understood the art of framing a complaint. The fact that quite a proportion of the early documents in English concern women may be of significance, but that needs exploration.

A fuller analysis of the rhetorical strategies employed in such documents, valuable for its own sake, would also give more substance to the final chapter of the book. This returns to texts that are more obviously literary, notably love complaints and petitions by Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve, to argue that these represent "a vigorously innovative practice of the ars dictaminis." However, these seem to me to constitute an entirely different genre based on models that have little or nothing to do with plaints or clamour texts. All in all the book loses much of its sharp and satisfying focus after the opening chapters and, while it offers many interesting insights along the way, does not pursue its original thesis through to its conclusion.

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Author Biography

T. Turville-Petre

University of Nottingham